Book recounts Brookville native’s historic aviation feats

A Pittsburgh-area author has given wings to the story of an early local aviator.

Paul Beck said he was in charge of the Stacks Department of the Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh when he came upon a newspaper article recounting Earle Sandt’s flight over Pittsburgh in 1912. “I became very enamored with the story and had to learn more.”

What Beck admired about Sandt is that “he never gave up,” as the aviator went through three airplanes.

“This guy had so much courage,” Beck said. “He had a passion for flying and a passion for anything that went fast. He loved fast cars and fast motorcycles.”

Beck’s research for his book — “Earle of the Air” — led him to Sandt’s hometown of Brookville, where he met Eric Armstrong, who helped with the graphics in his book. He also met David Taylor, a descendant of the Sandt family. Both men are members of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

Many of the photographs and articles used in the book came from the Sandt family.

Sandt was born May 18, 1888, in Brookville. He moved to Erie in 1908 with his brother, Walter. The two brothers purchased a storage garage on French Street, where they repaired automobiles and motorcycles.

Sandt developed an interest in aviation through his work on automobile and motorcycle engines. His interest in flying led him to attend a flight-training course in Hammondsport, New York, in September 1911. At that time, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss was building seaplanes in Hammondsport.

Sandt purchased his first airplane from the Curtiss factory for $4,500. His first public flight in Erie occurred the day before Thanksgiving in 1911. He successfully traveled 45 feet along the Erie lakefront before crashing.

This was just the first in a series of public flying demonstrations. In the following years Sandt flew many public exhibitions in Erie, including his historic flight across Lake Erie.

“It took a great deal of courage even to attempt that flight,” Beck said. “It was cold and you can see in the photos that he was bundled up. Then after he crashed, he went out to look for the plane.”

On Feb. 20, 1912, Sandt took off from the frozen bay at the foot of State Street and flew 36 miles across the lake to Long Point, Ontario.

The plane ran out of fuel during his return trip, despite having two full motorcycle gas tanks aboard. He was forced to make an emergency landing on the frozen lake, 5 five miles out from North East Township.

Sandt walked across the ice to the shore. When he went back to retrieve the plane, he discovered it had slipped under the ice and sank to the bottom of the lake.

Newspapers around the world praised Sandt for his feat, and the citizens of Erie gave him a grand celebration. He was paraded up and down State Street with a large brass band.

Sandt had several other achievements. On June 15, 1912, he became the first person to fly over Pittsburgh. A plaque in his honor was in the old Pittsburgh airport for many years.

In August 1912, Sandt became the first person to fly airmail in Ohio. Taylor said, according to family lore, Sandt flew over Fort Recovery, Ohio, where he dropped the mailbag from his plane and missed the drop zone by only about 20 feet.

Sandt performed publicly and continued to perfect his aviation skills, and flew in Clarion, Grove City, Conneaut and Brookville. Taylor said when Sandt was planning a flight from Brookville to Punxsutawney, he brought along his cousin for the ride.

“The plane was too heavy and clipped the house at the end of the runway,” Taylor said. “They weren’t hurt, but it was a few weeks before the plane could fly again.”

All too often, Sandt’s flights ended in a crash.

“I really admire how he came back after suffering a concussion when he crashed at Conneaut Lake,” Beck said.

One of his crashes, though, is what led to his death.

In June 1913, he crashed at the Grove City June Festival and developed lockjaw after breaking his leg. As a result, he died June 22, 1913, and is buried in the Brookville Cemetery.


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